American soul singer legend and West Virginia native Bill Withers has died at 81 of heart complications, unrelated to coronavirus, according to the Associated Press. In a statement released to the AP, Withers’ family said he died Monday in Los Angeles.
“Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me” and “Lovely Day” were just a few of the hits Withers wrote and sang during the peak of his career in the 70s and 80s — songs that have stood the test of time, most recently with people referencing “Lean On Me” as an anthem for hope during the coronavirus pandemic.
Withers was a three-time Grammy Award winner and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
“I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia,” Withers told Rolling Stone in 2015.
He was born in 1938, the last of 6 children, in the coal mining town of Slab Fork in Raleigh County. In some ways his childhood was similar to many West Virginians, with his family historically working in the coal mines, but in other ways it was much different.
“My family lived right beside the railroad track, and so all the white people live on one side of the railroad track and all black people are on the other side of the railroad track,” Withers said in an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2007.
Withers said much of his music was inspired by his childhood and his time spent growing up in West Virginia.
“You know, I think we all become the composite of the places we've been and the people we've met,” he said. “And I think wherever you grow up, you know, you can go somewhere else but you never really leave that place.”
The song “Grandma’s Hands” was about his grandma, who he said he remembered sitting on the porch, singing gospel songs and clapping her hands.
“She was the most encouraging person in my life,” he said. “When you’ve got people all around you telling you, ‘you can’t do nothing,’ you need somebody who tells you can.”
The song “Lean On Me” was also heavily influenced by Withers' childhood in West Virginia. The song includes the lyrics, “Lean on me when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend.”
“I remember we had a phone and the people across the street had a refrigerator, so they gave us ice and they used our phone,” Withers said about his neighborhood in West Virginia. “Just the economics made people kind of share and and help each other
After 14 years in the music industry, Withers abruptly departed in 1985 upon disagreements with his label Columbia Records, who he was with for nine years after a rocky relationship with his first label Sussex Records. He entered into an early retirement, focusing his time on his family, never returning to the industry.
However, he did give one spoken-word performance in his retirement at the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 2007.
“Bill has become a beacon and an icon - not just because of his music but for his dedication to caring about people,” according to a Facebook post from the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. “To that end, "Lean on Me" is an anthem whose time has clearly come again. Very few need to be reminded of his contributions to American music, and I have no doubts that you will continue to hear his magical songs many, many times in the future.”
Withers is survived by his wife, Marcia and children, Todd and Kori.
This story is part of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Southern Coalfields Reporting Project which is supported by a grant from the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.